Tenure is the Holy Grail for college professors. It confers freedom to express unpopular ideas without fear of being fired.
But academicians must express themselves respectfully, a Spokane County jury ruled Wednesday in an unprecedented lawsuit by a former Whitworth College professor who was dismissed for lack of “collegiality.”
Associate Professor Tony Mega’s firing in June 2002, after he refused to resign, is believed to be the first dismissal of a tenured professor in the private Christian college’s 115-year history.
Jurors apparently accepted Whitworth’s position that Mega, now 44, clearly was the cause of discord that paralyzed the chemistry faculty, and that he received “more than enough fairness.”
After a day of deliberation at the end of a three-week trial, jurors concluded that Mega’s conduct wasn’t protected by tenure.
By a 10-2 vote, jurors said Whitworth didn’t breach its tenure agreement not to fire Mega, chairman of the chemistry department, without “clear and convincing evidence of adequate cause.”
The jury also ruled in 11-1 votes that the college didn’t violate contractual obligations to not to dismiss Mega without informal and formal procedures spelled out in the faculty handbook.
A unanimous vote is not required to settle civil cases. Mega needed 10 votes to win.
Jurors never got to the point of deciding whether Mega’s claim for lost wages couldn’t extend past April 1 this year. College officials say that’s when they examined a copy of his computer hard drive and found he had been downloading pornography and – during work hours over the course of nearly three years – exchanging sexually explicit messages with a Texas woman he met through an online dating service.
Mega, who is married, admitted that misconduct, which college officals say would have justified dismissal.
In one message to the Texas woman, testimony indicated, Mega said he wanted to call her on the telephone so he could shoo away any students who came to his office.
Superior Court Judge Robert Austin didn’t allow jurors to consider what Mega’s attorney, John Gilmore of St. Paul, Minn., suggested was religious discrimination based on Mega’s membership in a fundamentalist church called “The Local Church.” Mega didn’t allege religious discrimination in his complaint, Austin said. Anyway, the law allows religious discrimination in religious organizations.
Instead, the case focused on testimony that most of Mega’s colleagues couldn’t work with him because he was so verbally abusive. Two female co-workers said they feared he would attack them physically.
Gilmore said the fears were contrived and Mega was the victim of “as backhanded, uncharitable and un-Christian conduct as you could imagine.” Gilmore scoffed at complaints that Mega would get so angry that his face would turn purple, veins on his forehead would bulge and spit would “froth out of the corners of his mouth.”
Gilmore conceded that Mega was “a bit of an odd duck” and “a little strange” on safety issues that generated some of the most heated disputes. But, Gilmore added, “once he got tenure, he should have been protected from these people who were stabbing him in the back.”
Whitworth attorney Matt Andersen in turn scoffed at Gilmore’s complaint that college rules didn’t grant Mega a formal hearing after he was fired, and that even then Mega couldn’t compel witnesses to testify. In court, with subpoena power, Mega couldn’t find a co-worker with anything good to say about him, Andersen said.
Mega got tenure by what Andersen described as “an eyelash.”
He had clashed with his Science Building colleagues to the extent that a faculty committee withdrew its recommendation that Mega be granted tenure. Whitworth President Bill Robinson resolved the issue by requiring Mega to sign a letter that quoted sections of the faculty handbook spelling out the duty of faculty members to be courteous.
Mega agreed to work “constructively” with colleagues, to refrain from personal criticism and to express himself “in a way that clearly respects and defends their free inquiry.” The agreement, which Robinson also signed, promised tenure in September 2000 if he committed no more uncivil behavior.
Mega stated in writing that he understood that, even with tenure, future violations could be considered insubordination that would justify dismissal.
In his lawsuit, Mega sought $819,677 for past and future lost wages on grounds that his dismissal destroyed his career prospects as a college professor.
Mega earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Whitworth in 1983 and a doctorate in chemistry from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 1989. He taught chemistry at Gonzaga University for three years before joining the Whitworth staff in September 1993 as an assistant professor. After receiving tenure and promotion to associate professor, Mega earned about $50,000 a year.
Since his dismissal, Mega said, he has been employed only by the University of Phoenix and Western International University – which specialize in online education – and Spokane Falls Community College’s Institute for Extended Learning.
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